My Playlist: The Black Crowes

The recent appearance of the previously unreleased Charming Mess by The Black Crowes, which I included in my latest Best of What’s New installment, reminded me of this great band. While I wouldn’t call myself an outright fan, I’ve always enjoyed their songs, especially their ’70s style blues rockers. This triggered the idea to put together a career-spanning post about their music.

Chris Robinson (lead vocals, guitar) and his younger brother Rich Robinson (lead guitar) formed the band in Marietta, Ga. in 1984 while they were still in high school. Initially called Mr. Crowe’s Garden after the children’s book Johnny Crowe’s Garden by Leonard Leslie Brookes, they were influenced by R.E.M., classic southern rock and ’60s psychedelic pop before embracing ’70s style blues rock.

In 1987, the band recorded their first demos at A&M Records. Two years later, they met A&R executive George Drakoulias, who signed them at Def American Recordings (now American Recordings), the label founded by Rick Rubin. Apparently, Drakoulias had an important influence, turning the band’s attention to The Faces and Humble Pie, and encouraging them to cover Rolling Stones tunes.

 Rich and Chris Robinson talk about their Black Crowes reunion
Rich Robinson (left) and Chris Robinson

By the time the band released their debut album Shake Your Money Maker in February 1990, they had changed their name to The Black Crowes. In addition to the Robinson brothers, the group included Jeff Cease (guitar), Johnny Colt (bass) and Steve Gorman (drums). Their line-up would frequently change over the years, with the Robinson brothers as the only constant members.

After releasing five more studio and two live albums between 1992 and 2001, The Black Crowes went on hiatus, and the Robinson brothers recorded solo albums. In early 2005, the brothers reassembled the group with a new line-up. Two studio and several live and compilation albums followed, together with more line-up changes before The Black Crowes came to an end for the second time in January 2015. Apparently, it was due to differences between the brothers regarding ownership of the band – in other words, a typical rock & roll story!

The current chapter of The Black Crowes started in late 2019 when the Robinson brothers during an interview with Howard Stern revealed they had overcome their disagreements and were planning to revive the band for a 2020 tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Shake Your Money Maker album. The newly reformed group premiered on November 11, 2019 at The Bowery Ball Room New York City with a backing band comprised of Isiah Mitchell (guitar), Tim Lefebvre (bass), Joel Robinow (keyboards) and Raj Ojha (drums). The tour was stopped by COVID-19 and is now set to resume in Florida in late June.

Time for some music. Let’s kick it off with the excellent Jealous Again from the Shake Your Money Maker debut. Like all originals, the tune was co-written by the Robinson brothers.

Here’s another track from the same album I really dig: She Talks to Angels.

In May 1992, The Black Crowes released their sophomore record The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. It topped the Billboard 200, fueled by four singles that each hit no. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart. Here’s one of them: Remedy.

A Conspiracy, off the band’s third album Amorica from November 1994, features some cool wah-wah guitar action and is reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, especially in the beginning.

Three Snakes and One Charm, the fourth album by The Black Crowes, appeared in July 1996. Here’s Blackberry.

On By Your Side from January 1999, The Black Crowes returned to a more straightforward approach from their debut album. According to Wikipedia, it drew praise from many reviewers while some critics dismissed it as a knock off of Rod Stewart and The Rolling Stones – well, I suppose you can’t make everybody happy. Here’s the dynamic opener Go Faster.

May 2001 saw Lions, the band’s sixth studio release and the last prior to their hiatus. Apple Music calls the Don Was-produced work “the most unusual album in The Black Crowes’ catalog.” Soul Singing, which became the album’s second single, has a soul and gospel touch.

Warpaint, released in March 2008, was the first album by The Black Crowes after they had reemerged from hiatus and their seventh studio effort overall. It became their first top 10 album on the Billboard 200 since their 1992 sophomore release, peaking at no. 5. Here’s Wounded Bird, which also appeared separately as the second single in June of the same year.

This brings me to Before the Frost…Until the Freeze, the eighth and to date most recent studio album by The Black Crowes. It was recorded at The Barn, Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, N.Y., before a live audience. Here’s the tasty opener Good Morning Captain.

I’d like to wrap things up with a track from Croweology, a compilation of new acoustic-based recordings of songs from The Black Crowes’ first six studio albums. Hotel Illness initially appeared on their 1992 sophomore release The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Lately, I feel I sound like a broken record. Yet another busy week is coming to an end, which once again didn’t leave me with an opportunity to blog. Finally, I was able to carve out some time to take a look at newly-released music.

This Best of What’s New installment features different flavors of rock and some indie pop. Two of the artists are relatively young and were unknown to me, while the two remaining songs come from famous acts. One is a post-mortem, previously unreleased cover of a Bob Dylan tune by an artist who sadly passed away in January 2016. The other one is going to knock off your socks if you’re into early ’70s rock.

Lande Hekt/Undone

Lande Hekt is a founding member of British punk and indie rock band Muncie Girls, which was formed in 2010 in Exeter, England. Their debut album From Caplan To Belsize appeared in March 2016, followed by sophomore Fixed Ideals in August 2018. Undone is a song from Hekt’s solo debut cheerfully titled Going to Hell, which was released today (January 22). Like all of the 10 other tracks, the tune was written by Hekt. According to a review on Bandcamp Daily, she played all instruments herself except for the percussion. The album has a bare-bones homemade feel to it, which is part of what drew me in.

Pearl Charles/Imposter

Pearl Charles is a singer-songwriter from Los Angeles. According to her artist profile on Apple Music, she has a knack for writing melodic, low-key indie pop with a jangling country tone. After coming up through the Los Angeles lo-fi and garage scenes, she made her full-length debut in 2018 with Sleepless Dreamer, a finely crafted slice of warm country-pop. She followed it up three years later with Magic Mirror. A lifelong musician, the L.A. native first gained exposure as one-half of lo-fi Americana duo the Driftwood Singers, who released a pair of EPs and one full-length in 2012. A stint playing drums for garage pop act the Blank Tapes introduced her to the crew at Burger Records, who offered to release her first solo effort, a 2015 self-titled EP. Imposter, written by Charles, is a catchy tune from her new album Magic Mirror released on January 15. I’m definitely curious to hear more of her music.

David Bowie/Tryin’ to Get to Heaven

This previously unreleased cover of Bob Dylan’s Tryin’ to Get to Heaven appeared as a single on January 8, which would have been David Bowie’s 74th birthday. As reported by NME, Bowie who died from liver cancer in January 2016 just two days after his 69th birthday, recorded this version in 1989 while working on LiveAndWell.com, a limited edition live album that first came out in November 1999. On January 15, it was re-released as part of the Brilliant Live Adventures series of six concert albums. Originally, Dylan recorded Tryin’ to Get to Heaven for his 30th studio album Time Out of Mind from September 1997.

The Black Crowes/Charming Mess

On January 9, The Black Crowes announced a 30th-anniversary re-issue of their excellent debut album Shake Your Money Maker, which features Charming Mess, a previously unreleased and “recently unearthed” song. The reissue, which includes 4LP Super Deluxe, 3CD Super Deluxe, 2CD, Standard CD & LP, streaming and download formats (jeez, they’re not kiddin’ around here!), is set for release on February 26. Co-written by the band’s founding members Christopher Robinson and his brother Richard S. Robinson, Charming Mess feels like taking a trip back to the early ’70s and listening to a Faces tune – just awesome! After a hiatus from 2002 to 2005 and a breakup in January 2015, The Black Crowes reunited in November 2019 for a planned tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their debut album. The rest is COVID! Now it appears the tour is set to kick off in Tampa, Fla. on June 25. They’re scheduled to play in my neck of the woods in mid-July – man, that should be a cool show and definitely something I’d consider, depending on where things are with the pandemic.

Sources: Wikipedia; Bandcamp Daily; Apple Music; NME; The Black Crowes website; YouTube

Of Slides and Bottlenecks

The sound of a well played slide guitar is one of the coolest in music in my opinion. I’ve always loved it. It’s also one of the most challenging techniques that requires great precision and lots of feeling. You can easily be off, which to me is the equivalent of a violin player who hasn’t mastered yet how to properly use the bow or a trumpet player who is still working on their blowing technique – in other words real torture, if you miss!

I thought it would be fun putting together a post that features great slide guitarists from different eras. Before getting to some music, I’d like to give a bit of background on the technique and a very brief history. More specifically, I’m focusing on slide guitar played in the traditional position, i.e., flat against the body, as opposed to lap steel guitar where the instrument is placed in a player’s lap and played with a hand-held bar.

How to Play Slide Guitar - Quickstart Guide | Zing Instruments

Slide guitar is a technique where the fret hand uses a hard object called a slide instead of the fingers to change the pitch of the strings. The slide, which oftentimes is a metal of a glass tube aka “bottle neck,” is fitted on one of the guitarist’s fingers. Holding it against the strings while moving it up and down the fretboard creates glissando or gliding effects and also offers the opportunity to play pronounced vibratos. The strings are typically plucked, not strummed with the other hand.

The technique of holding a hard object against a plucked string goes back to simple one-string African instruments. In turn, these instruments inspired the single-stringed diddley bow, which was developed as a children’s toy by Black slaves in the U.S. It was considered an entry-level instrument played by adolescent boys who once they mastered it would move on to a regular guitar.

Clockwise starting from left in upper row: Sylvester Weaver, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Brian Jones, Mike Boomfield, Muddy Waters, Duane Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder and Derek Trucks

The bottleneck slide guitar technique was popularized by blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta near the beginning of the twentieth century. Country blues pioneer Sylvester Weaver made the first known slide guitar recording in 1923. Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and other blues artists popularized the use of slide guitar in the electric blues genre. In turn, they influenced the next generation of blues and rock guitarists like Mike Bloomfield (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band), Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers Band) and Ry Cooder.

Time for some music. Here’s Sylvester Weaver with the instrumental Guitar Blues, one of the earliest slide guitar recordings.

One of the masters of Delta blues who prominently used slide guitar was Robert Johnson. Here’s the amazing Cross Road Blues from 1936 from one of only two recording sessions in which Johnson participated. If you haven’t heard this version but it somehow sounds familiar, chances are you’ve listened to Cream’s cover titled Crossroads.

Are you ready to shake it? Here’s smoking hot Shake Your Money Maker written by Elmore James. James released this classic blues standard in December 1961.

The Rolling Stones were fans of the Chicago blues. One of their blues gems featuring Brian Jones on slide guitar was Little Red Rooster, which they released as a single in the UK in November 1964. It was also included on their third American studio album The Rolling Stones, Now! from February 1965. Written by Willie Dixon, the tune was first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in October 1961.

Next is Walkin’ Blues, which The Paul Butterfield Blues Band covered on their second studio album East-West from August 1966, featuring Mike Bloomfield on slide guitar. The tune was written by Delta blues artist Son House in 1930.

In May 1969, Muddy Waters released his sixth studio album After the Rain. Here’s slide guitar gem Rollin’ and Tumblin’, which was first recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern (gotta love this name!) in 1929. It’s unclear who wrote the tune.

Here’s one of the greatest slide guitarists of all time: Duane Allman with The Allman Brothers Band and One Way Out. This amazing rendition appeared on an expanded version of At Fillmore East released in October 1992. The original edition appeared in July 1971, three months prior to Duane’ deadly motorcycle accident. Co-written by Marshall Sehorn and Elmore James, the tune was first recorded and released in the early to mid-’60s by Sonny Boy Williamson II and James.

A post about slide guitar wouldn’t be complete without the amazing Bonnie Raitt, an artist I’ve dug for many years. Here’s Sugar Mama, a song co-written by Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark, which she recorded for her fifth studio album Home Plate from 1975.

Let’s do two more tracks performed by two additional must-include slide guitar masters. First up is Ry Cooder with Feelin’ Bad Blues, a tune Cooder wrote for the soundtrack of the 1986 picture Crossroads, which was inspired by the life of Robert Johnson. This is a true slide beauty!

Last but not least, here’s Derek Trucks who is considered to be one of the best contemporary slide guitarists. Trucks is best known as an official member of the Allmans from 1999-2014 and as co-founder of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which he formed together with his wife Susan Tedeschi in 2010. Here’s a great live performance of Desdemona by The Allman Brothers, featuring some amazing slide guitar playing by Trucks. Co-written by Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes, the tune was included on the band’s final studio album Hittin’ the Note that came out in March 2003.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

When Covers Are Just As Much Fun As Originals

A playlist of some of my favorite remakes

Lately, I’m somehow in the mood of compiling lists: first car songs, then train tunes and now remakes. Given how much I enjoy listening to great covers, it’s a surprise I didn’t do this list first!

In general, remakes I like fall into two categories: A version that changes the character of a song, essentially turning it into a new tune. Perhaps the best example I can think of is Joe Cocker’s version of The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends. Or it simply can be a remake of a tune that stays true to its original – nothing wrong with that, especially if it’s a great song! One terrific example I came across recently is Roger McGuinn’s cover of If I Needed Someone, one of my favorite Beatles tunes. I know, again the Fab Four – I just can’t help it!

Obviously, it won’t come as a big surprise that both of the above tunes are on my list. Here is the entire compilation.

With a Little Help From My Friends/Joe Cocker

Not only credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney by actually also written collaboratively by the two, With a Little Help From My Friends first appeared in May 1967 on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was one of only a handful of Beatles tunes featuring Ringo Starr on lead vocals. Cocker’s version came out two years later as the title song of his debut album.

Love Hurts/Nazareth

Written by American songwriter Boudleaux Bryant, Love Hurts was first recorded by The Everly Brothers in July 1960. In 1975, Scottish hard rock band Nazareth turned the tune into an epic power ballad, including it on their sixth studio album Hair of the Dog. It’s another great example of a remake that completely changed the character of the original tune.

Under the Boardwalk/John Mellencamp

Under the Boardwalk was first recorded by The Drifters and released as a single in June 1964. The song was created by songwriters Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick. Perhaps the best known cover of the tune is from The Rolling Stones, which was included on their second U.S. record 12 X 5 released in October 1964. While I like the Stones version, I think John Mellencamp did an even better remake for his 1999 studio album Rough Harvest.

Pinball Wizard/Elton John

Pinball Wizard is one of my all-time favorite tunes from The Who. Written by Pete Townsend, it was released as a single in March 1969 and also included on the Tommy album that appeared two months thereafter. The one thing I always felt about The Who’s version is that it ended somewhat prematurely. Enter Elton John and his dynamite, extended cover for the rock opera’s 1975 film adaption.

Stand By Me/John Lennon

One of the most beautiful ballads of the 60s, Stand By Me was written by Ben E. King, together with the songwriter powerhouse of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The tune was first released by King as a single in 1961 and also later included on his 1962 studio album Don’t Play That Song. One of my favorite remakes is John Lennon’s version, which he included on his sixth studio album Rock ‘n’ Roll released in February 1975.

If I Needed Someone/Roger McGuinn

Written by George Harrison, If I Needed Someone was included on The Beatles’ sixth studio album Rubber Soul from 1965. Harrison played his Rickenbacker 360/12 to record the tune, which he had first used the previous year during the motion picture A Hard Day’s Night. That’s where Roger McGuinn for the first time heard the beautiful sound of the 12-string electric guitar. He decided to use it for his own music, which resulted in The Byrds’ signature jingle jangle sound. Given this inspiration, it’s perhaps not a big surprise that McGuinn ended up recording a cover of the tune. It was included on his 2004 studio record Limited Edition.

Proud Mary/Ike & Tina Turner

Proud Mary was written by the great John Fogerty and first released by Creedence Clearwater Revival in early 1969, both as a single and on their second studio album Bayou Country. Then in 1971, Ike & Tina Turner recorded an amazing remake. It appeared as a single and was included on the album Working Together. The cover, which became their biggest hit, is another great example of how a remake can become a completely new song.

Light My Fire/José Feliciano

Credited to all four members of The Doors – Jim Morrison, Robbie Krieger, John Densmore and Ray Manzarek – Light My Fire appeared on the band’s eponymous debut album from January 1967. It was also released as a single in April that year. I’ve always loved the organ part on that tune. And then there is of course the cover from José Feliciano, which as a guitarist I appreciate in particular. It appeared on 1968’s Feliciano!, his fourth studio record. Feliciano’s laid-back jazzy style to play the tune is exceptionally beautiful.

Runaway/Bonnie Raitt

Runaway is one of my favorite early 60s pop tunes. Written by Del Shannon and keyboarder Max Crook, it was first released as a single by Shannon in February 1961. The song was also included on his debut studio album Runaway with Del Shannon, which appeared in June that year. Bonnie Raitt, who I’ve admired for many years as an exceptional guitarist and songwriter, recorded a fantastic remake for her 1977 studio album Sweet Forgiveness.  I was fortunate enough to see this amazing lady last year. She is still on top of her game!

Hard to Handle/The Black Crowes

Hard to Handle is one of the many great tunes from Otis Redding, who co-wrote it with Al Bell and Allen Jones. It was released in June 1968, six months after Redding’s untimely death at age 26 in a plane crash. In 1990, The Black Crowes recorded a fantastic rock version of the song for their debut studio album Shake Your Money Maker, scoring their first no. 1 single on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks. It is perhaps the tune’s best known cover.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; YouTube